Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Carpenter's Gothic" William Gaddis


Stupidity’s the deliberate cultivation of ignorance, that’s what we’ve got here.

I’ll tell you something, revelation’s the last refuge ignorance finds from reason. Revealed truth is the one weapon stupidity’s got against intelligence, and that’s what the whole damned thing is all about.

I’ll tell you something right now. The greatest source of anger is fear, the greatest source of hatred is anger, and the greatest source of it all is this mindless revealed religion anywhere you look. Sikhs killing Hindus, Hindus killing Moslems, Druse killing Maronites, Jews killing Arabs, Arabs killing Christians and Christians killing each other.


In 1985 when this book was written, it must have seemed funnier than it is today, when most of the lunacy it describes and posits as funny has become a central fact in the output of the daily news. Gaddis describes with the prescience of all great artists the future battleground for the American soul.

The plot is complex, involving the CIA, missionaries in Africa acting as cover for commercial interests on a mining concession on a stretch of land believed to contain ore, a corrupt US Senator using the missionary as a front for his own seed company to get in on the mining deal, a failed and bitter geologist who discovered the ore years ago, a Vietnam war veteran, acting as media consultant to the missionary, and his wife, an heiress to a South African mining magnate’s fortune, which fortune is locked into 23 law suits, and her kid brother. Also sundry lawyers, a French speaking Haitian maid, a childhood friend, a secret service man, an ex-wife and a whole cast of minor characters and disembodied voices who appear on the telephone.
Like many 19th century novels, all these elements of the plot are brought together by one coincidence: the Vietnam vet and his wife have rented the house they are living in – a wooden Carpenter’s Gothic house in upstate New York- through an agent, from the old geologist. He shows up half way through the book to sort through some papers he keeps in a locked room and becomes the wife’s lover. Gradually, the disparate elements of the plot are revealed and everything becomes connected.
The action focuses on only a few of the characters: the marriage between Paul and Liz, Liz’s relationship with the geologist McCandless, and her brother. The marriage is a wreck; Paul is a passive aggressive who bullies and perhaps even beats his wife. Her loneliness is palpable, and she is the central protagonist of the tale.

All the action is set in the one house, with only glimpses of the outside world, which appears dark and threatening: the neighbourhood kids seem to be watching the house, the doves and pigeons appear to be a threat, crows circle menacingly, and the autumnal landscape is full of death and decay. It’s Halloween. Like Hawthorn’s House of Seven Gables, and Poe’s gothic fantasies, the house is a strong presence in the novel, brooding, isolated and dark.


Perhaps the most amazing thing about the novel is the fact that all this is told in dialogue. All the action is revealed through what the characters say to each other. The bulk of the discourse is dialogue, or monologue. Gaddis’s dialogue is not like other writers’. He uses French (or Joycean) punctuation, which makes it hard to know when the dialogue stops and the narrative voice takes over. The speech of the characters is very realistic, that is to say, highly fragmented, with constant backtracking, unresolved sentences, fragments, repetitions of insignificant words, interruptions of new thoughts, limited vocabulary range and no punctuation. It’s as if Gaddis has studied conversational exchanges from a linguistic perspective and incorporated the latest research on the nature of conversation. It’s quite unlike the ordered, literary dialogue ‘spoken’ by other writers’ characters.

What narrative voice there is, and there is really not that much, is restricted to short paragraphs, usually at the beginning and end of chapters, and in the spaces between scenes before another character arrives. The narrative voice is sketchy, using very limited vocabulary, strings of Hemingwayesque prepositional phrases that seem to meander without structure. It is restricted to descriptions of the scenery outside the house only, and to descriptions of very mundane actions: putting on the kettle to make tea, and the clink of the whisky bottle on the glass (there’s an awful lot of hard drinking and smoking). There is no authorial commentary. There is no free indirect discourse, and we are never told what the characters are thinking, only given their speech. It reminds me of David Mamet, Greek tragedy, and E.M Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Gaddis’s focus on dialogue, his trademark, has a number of significant ramifications. First, it gives the novel the concentration of drama. The action is in the words, and indeed words become actions: the dichotomy between word and deed is abolished. Gaddis is immensely skilful at revealing character and situation through dialogue, and in this he shares the stage with the greatest dramatists, Shakespeare, Pirandello, Arthur Miller, and Sophocles. Secondly, it forefronts the nature of writing, and constantly jolts the reader into staying awake, rather like Brecht’s ferfremdungseffekt. We are never far way from the realisation that we cannot really see these characters, that they are verbal constructs only.

In Gore Vidal’s metafiction Duluth, one of the characters makes a speech towards the end of the novel, in which she says: “We are simply formulations of words. We do not live. We are interchangeable, we go on, and we go on. From narrative to narrative, whether in serial form, or in those abstract verbal constructions so beloved by the French and by boola-boola Yale…” In literature there are no ‘characters’, only verbal constructions. It makes no sense to engage in Freudian criticism, then, as the characters are not real people. (Duh!) Freudian criticism only detracts from the real job of criticism, which is political, in its deepest sense. What is happening with our society? What is happening when people’s ability to think is determined/restricted by their vocabulary? What is happening when their vocabulary is taken over by the mad discourse of revealed religion. What happens to the culture when people become prisoners of their own convictions (convicts)?

The complex plot allows Gaddis to deal with a whole host of themes, not least of which is the argument of evolution versus creationism, which in 1985 must have seemed absurd, and rich comic ground: parody of a small crazy minority. In McCandless's long rant against revealed religion, and in many of his dialogues, in the monologues of Paul as he reads from the paper and discusses his projects with Liz, the text is peppered with the empty platitudes of Christianity the cross of Jesus going on before ever unto darkest Africa to harvest those washed in the blood of Jesus. It’s a parody, but at the same time, also rather sinister, washed in the blood of Jesus…. This of course allows Gaddis some rather delicious irony. At one point Liz picks up the phone to try to get through to her husband, who is working for the redneck Bible-belt Reverend Ude, but the number he has given her is for the Lord’s hotline…

The central irony is the retreat of science in the face of revealed religion. McCandless was involved in a court case in a place called Smackover, where creationists argued for equal teaching time in the curriculum for Genesis and evolution. They won, and McCandless bitterly quotes some of their text books:

Some people believe that evolution explains the diversity of organisms on the earth. Some people do not believe in evolution These people believe that the various types of organisms were created as they appear. …Another hypothesis about the creation of the universe with all its life forms is special creation, which gives God the critical role in creation. In some school systems it is mandated that the evolution and the special creation theories be taught side by side. This seems a healthy attitude in view of the tenuous nature of the hypothesis…. Find their geology text books, you look up geologic era? Fossil remains? Nothing. Palaeontology? The word itself is gone. It’s just disappeared.

In his poem Dover Beach, Mathew Arnold describes the withdrawal of religion in the face of the new geological science revealing the real age of the earth as incontrovertible fact. The poem describes the uncertainty faced by the mid-Victorians consequent on the loss of religious conviction, and the fear and doubt caused by the fact that man is revealed as alone in the world without God:
And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In Gaddis, writing at the first glimmerings of the twilight of Western Civilisation, this situation is reversed: the fear and the doubt comes from the withdrawal of scientific certainty in the face of the rising tide of the stupidity of revealed religion. For McCandless the geologist, the ignorant are the religious right, the creationists.

The symbol of this emptiness caused by the retreat of science in the face of faith is the old man who appears each day outside the house to sweep the leaves, in a futile display of purpose. Watch him trying to pretend there’s some damned reason to get up in the morning…

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